National Security

DHS unwinds Trump-era public charge restrictions

The Biden administration on Thursday finalized a rule to replace a Trump-era policy that sought to limit immigration of those it feared may rely on social services.

The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy rolls back the Trump administration’s so-called public charge rule, restricting immigration pathways for those seeking to become U.S. citizens only if they are “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.”

The Biden administration stopped defending the Trump-era rule just months after taking office, but the new rule is a departure from a Trump-era policy requiring prospective new citizens to forecast whether they might at any time rely on government aid.

The Trump-era rule barred those who received assistance from one program over the course of a year and roped in new programs that were previously excluded from consideration, including food stamps and medical assistance.

“This action ensures fair and humane treatment of legal immigrants and their U.S. citizen family members,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a release. 

“Consistent with America’s bedrock values, we will not penalize individuals for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government services available to them.”

The Hill first reported the rule was expected to be released Thursday.

DHS described its new rule as restoring “the historical understanding of a ‘public charge’ that had been in place for decades, until the prior administration began to consider supplemental public health benefits such as Medicaid and nutritional assistance.”

An applicant’s use of cash assistance programs will still be weighed as a factor in a green card application.

The Trump-era public charge rule was one of a number of restrictions the previous administration sought to put in place restricting pathways to citizenship for those already in the U.S. as well as for those overseas seeking immigration visas.

But the Biden administration said the policy had ramifications for U.S. citizens as well, particularly in households where parents hold different immigration statuses, noting a drop of enrollment in such programs for children from those families.

The Department of Health and Human Services also praised the changes, calling Medicaid, and its program for children, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), essential services.

“People who qualify for Medicaid, CHIP, and other health programs should receive the care they need without fear of jeopardizing their immigration status,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a release. 

“As we have experienced with COVID, it’s in the interest of all Americans when we utilize the health care and other services at our disposal to improve public health for everyone.”

Immigration advocates noted that even with the change, they would need to work to battle the chilling effect the Trump-era rule had on people’s willingness to access benefits.

“Solidifying long-standing public charge policy that doesn’t negatively factor in health, nutrition, & housing supports as part of public charge assessments is an important step in reassuring people—including immigration attorneys—that this policy will not be easily reversed,” Shelby Gonzales, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities vice president for immigration policy, wrote on Twitter. 

“Now outreach is needed to make sure people know about the new rule & feel safe in accessing benefits.”

The rule will take effect on Dec. 23, representing a reversal from a Trump rule that was ultimately vacated by the courts but seen by immigration advocates as a means test from an administration that pushed numerous policies seeking to limit immigration.  

“Immigrants throughout this country’s history have come here with nothing more than the change in their pocket and built families, legacies, and business empires. The previous administration sought to weaponize a loophole in the history of the public charge laws,” Jorge Loweree, managing director of programs for the American Immigration Council.

The United States does best when it takes advantage of the talents of immigrants from all walks of life, not just the privileged. Stigmatizing newly-arriving immigrants for having low incomes ignores the evidence that immigrants need time to establish their roots in this country. The data is clear that immigrants are a net benefit to this country, even if they start from the bottom and work their way up.”

Updated at 12:35 p.m. 

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Biden Biden administration public charge rule Trump administration

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